Monday, 30 April 2012

The third year research project

Since the beginning of this academic year in September, I've been busy designing, doing, and writing up my research project. In my degree (Zoology), instead of doing a dissertation like most other universities, we have to do an independent research project. It's basically a piece of scientific work - we decide a question we want to answer, we design an experiment to try and find out the answer to this question, we do the experiment, we statistically analyse the results, and we (at least attempt to) work out what it all means and what implications it'll have for science as a whole.

My project ended up being about how noise in the environment affects zebra finches (which, for those who don't know, are these little birdies...)
When we started thinking about projects at the end of my second year, I decided I didn't feel brave enough to go for a self-generated project (where you design everything for your project yourself), so I wanted to let whoever my supervisor was pick my project for me. Except when I was allocated my supervisor, he basically said I could do whatever I wanted to (definitely not what I signed up for. Thanks(!)). I was partnered with another girl (as we weren't allowed to do field work by ourselves for insurance purposes), and as my uni campus is currently a bit of a building site we decided we wanted to do a project on how noise might affect the behaviour of birds around the campus.

We were assigned a sort of sub-supervisor (who's thankfully been a lot more helpful!) as she does research into how noise affects all sorts of things in zebra finches (stress responses like heart rate, hormones, behaviours etc.), and she helped us develop a method we liked - we were originally a bit ambitious and wanted to see how their patterns of movement changed, how their behaviours changed, and how their foraging rates changed, and we wanted to use 6 different noises. We had our cages all set up and did a first few trials with birds... except the birds sat around and didn't forage at all. Nightmare!

Cue a rapid change in project idea... we cut it down to 3 noise treatments - traffic (an anthropogenic (man-made) noise), rain ( a natural noise) and silence (so we could see what birds naturally do). We also got rid of the idea of looking at movement patterns, and we also got rid of the idea of just looking at foraging rates (because they didn't forage at all...), so we decided to look at how behaviour (mainly vigilance), location within the test cage, and proximity to a companion bird change between the 3 different noise treatments.

Spending hours upon hours in the windowless aviary was very long and boring, but analysing and writing up the data was even longer. In the end, we found that the birds spent the greatest amount of time being vigilant (watching out for predators or other threats), vigilance was highest during the rain noise treatment (which I didn't expect, I would've expected the highest vigilance in the traffic noise that they weren't used to) and lowest in the silence periods (which was exactly what I expected), and birds spend more time vigilant in the second trial we did on them than they did in the first trial (which, again, wasn't expected - I thought they would spend less time vigilant in the second trial because they were used to the noises). Location and proximity didn't change though, which was a shame as it wasn't quite as interesting as I'd hoped.

Writing up my project was a bit of a nightmare. Compared to the traditional dissertation that most uni students do, which is normally 10,000 words, my 5,200-word offering seems a bit pathetic. But designing the project, carrying out the experiment and doing all the statistics on our data, on top of writing the report, ended up being a bit of a mammoth task.

I had everything done ready to be printed and bound into a nice little booklet on Thursday so I could hand it in on Friday (with the deadline of today (Monday)). On Thursday afternoon off I trotted to the reprographics department on campus, I gave them my PDF files of my project and they printed it on nice thick paper and bound it into a professional-looking booklet. I was feeling really proud of myself because woooo, project finished!... but that feeling didn't last long, as when I got home and was showing it off to one of Steve's housemates, he straight away looked at my risk assessment and said "... 3 x 1 doesn't equal 4...". What. An. Idiot. I'd done it twice on the same page too, so no hope of claiming it was a typo.... . A table on that page hadn't printed right either, and when I looked at my reference list I realised I had some citations in the text that weren't in my reference list and some references that I hadn't cited in the text. It irritated me all that evening... do I try and tippex the mistakes in the risk assessment and just hope they don't notice the reference list? Or do I just forget about the £15 I spent on printing and binding and bite the bullet and get it all done again so I can hand in a mistake-free piece? In the end I went for the latter, and once the decision was made I felt so much better about it.

So, on Friday morning, I wandered off up to the library to print it all again. Thanks to a helpful tip-off from a friend about how to print for free on campus (seriously, big thanks, it saved me £7.50), I got it all printed again and got it bound.

Here it is, in all its finished and (hopefully) mistake-free glory...
Isn't it beautiful! *sheds a little tear*

I missed the office opening hours so that I could hand it in on Friday, so I had to get up bright and early to go and hand it in this morning. I did  a little bit of an internal celebratory/victory dance once it was out of my hands, and thanked some sort of god that I wasn't in the same position as one of my housemates (who is only about 1500 words in to his 10,000 word dissertation which is due on Thursday, but that's another story entirely...).

Yaaaaay, it's done! Only exams to go now and then I'm a free woman!

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